SAN JOSE, Calif.–When San Jose Earthquakes president David Kaval and general manager John Doyle initially met with Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis to discuss the concept of the English powers crossing the Atlantic to face the MLS All-Stars this summer, it probably seemed like little more than a courtesy afforded by Gazidis in recognition of his nearly 15 years spent working for MLS in various executive roles.
After all, Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger wouldn’t give up time in his traditional preseason home base of Austria.
Or would he?
“We looked at a lot of possible clubs for this match,” Kaval told reporters Thursday, after Arsenal were announced as the 2016 AT&T MLS All-Star opponent for the July 28 matchup. “We felt that Arsenal was basically on the top of the list. We thought it was not a possibility because they just didn’t usually travel to places like this for the preseason. So when it became a possibility, even, we were pretty excited. And we were kind of holding our breath that we could get the deal done, that we could get Arsene Wenger and the whole club excited about coming here.
“And we did it.”
The Premier League title-chasers will be coming to California for the first time in their history; Arsenal’s only other US trip since 1989 was a quick jaunt to face the New York Red Bulls in 2014.
Alex Wicks, Arsenal’s Head of Partnership Development, chuckled at the fact that Avaya Stadium’s balmy, 72-degree weather was “a far cry from London in February” and said interest at the club’s offices was running high for the tour, which also includes a game against Mexican side Chivas Guadalajara at StubHub Center on July 31.
“As soon as we started to communicate internally that we were going to be playing in California, there were lots of people that put their hands up to come along on the trip,” Wicks said. “We’ll have to see who actually makes it.”
Presumably, that list will include Gazidis and Arsenal majority shareholder Stan Kroenke, who also owns the Colorado Rapids (among other American sports properties). The links between Arsenal and MLS – including the years spent Stateside by former Gunner stars Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljungberg – made the game a natural fit, according to MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott.
“The connections that we have with Arsenal make it really special,” Abbott said. “It’s just really a special combination that we were able to bring together.”
Perhaps even more than current players such as Petr Cech, Mesut Özil, Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott or Jack Wilshere, the visitors’ biggest star might be Wenger, who outlasted Alex Ferguson to assume the mantle of dean of the Premier League coaching fraternity. Going up against the 66-year-old Frenchman will be Quakes coach Dominic Kinnear, who also led the MLS All-Stars in 2009.
“It’s an honor. It really is,” Kinnear told MLSsoccer.com. “As you grow up a soccer fan, you grow up watching these teams play and you watch the managers – obviously, everyone knows Arsene Wenger and the change he really brought to the Premier League, with his off-the-field habits, what he wanted his players to do. For me, it’s really neat.”
Kinnear will be guaranteed his usual seat on July 28, although others may not be so lucky. Club season-ticket holders – whom, Kaval says, number just less than 13,000 – will have priority at getting All-Star seats, but may be moved out of their normal spots as the league works out where to put VIPs.
One possible change has already been ruled out: Kaval said there are no plans for temporary seats at the open end of Avaya Stadium, which has a listed capacity of 18,000. Enclosing the stadium’s open side – which features one of the stadium’s centerpieces, the longest outdoor bar in North America – would compromise the Avaya experience, in Kaval’s estimation.
“What we’re most focused on is making sure the stadium shows well for such a huge event, and that everyone who’s in the building has an amazing experience,” Kaval said.